Tolkien - The Man and the Myth

An essay by Colin Symes


It often seems to me a contradiction in terms that a man who was a professor in one of the most esoteric of world institutions, the University of  Oxford, in one of the most ivory-towered of its departments, that of Old English, should become one of the most popular and beloved writers in the English language. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was as surprised as anyone by his own success. His project to write a myth for England was his own very idiosyncratic hobby. Yet it was to form the basis on which the world was introduced to the characters of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the other personae of the Lord of the Rings.


And the catalogue of awards it has received is impressive indeed; the Lord of Rings has twice been voted the most popular novel in the United Kingdom - once in the 1990s and again last year in the BBC's Britain's Favourite book , to the fist-chewing chagrin of literary critics. The recent film version has won a number of academy awards, and the film's music voted best film soundtrack in a Classic FM poll. And it is not just our generation that has feted him. In the 1960s, Tolkien became the darling of the hippy generation, who saw his work as a diatribe against establishment, and saw the hobbits as archetypal free spirits whom they wished to own as one of them.


How is it that such a seemingly remote and eccentric character should still be so honoured by a society so caught up with glamour and pop?  For me, the answer lies in the themes which undergird the book, the Lord of the Rings, and the broader myth in which it is set, found in the Silmarillion. For they are themes which resonate with Tolkien's own heartfelt beliefs; he was strong Christian believer, of the Roman Catholic tradition, which his mother had adopted, at the cost of the approval of her family, when Tolkien was still a boy.


Themes such as loyalty, honour, faithfulness, and covenant run all through his stories. And evil, although graphically portrayed is never at any point made to be attractive or to look neutral or harmless. For Tolkien, evil is to be overcome by good.


Tolkien loved the ancients sagas and epics of the Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons. When he discovered Old English, he said that it was a language he felt he already instinctively knew, deep within himself. His writing reflects the drama and the heroism of those sources.


Yet Tolkien did not see them as just fictional tales,  made up to entertain. He saw the ancient legends as an attempt to make sense of the world around, and he as a Christian understood this desire to 'sub-create' the story as being derived from God Himself , the Origo of all things, as he describes him in his poem mythopoeia. And this is what Tolkien in fact believed he himself was doing in writing his tales of middle-earth.


Here is what Tolkien said of his work, quoted from his biography by Humphrey Carpenter;


A man may be given by God the gift of recording a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth... and of his characters, they arose in my mind as 'given things', and as they came, separately, so too the links grew.. always I had the sense of recording what was already 'there', somewhere, not of 'inventing'.


Again, of his elves, Tolkien has this to say,


The Elves of the Silmarillion have nothing whatever to do with the 'tiny leprechauns' of 'goblin feet'. They are , to all intents and purposes, men; or rather, they are man before the fall which deprived him of his powers of achievement... they are made by man in his own image and likeness, but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.


But, some might say, there is no God in the Lord of the Rings. How can Tolkien be writing a myth which comes out his Christian belief ? Yet it's clear that the Divine Creator is there from the beginning, in the Silmarillion , in the person of  the One, who makes the Valar, the angelic beings who watch over the earth. Worship of Him is not explicit in Tolkien's books, but it is always discernible through the imagery and the themes of faith which Tolkien explores.


Thus, Gandalf in a Christ-like moment on the bridge of Khazad Dum interposes himself between the company and the demonic figure of the Balrog. He is lost to the fellowship, and they mourn Him. Yet he returns, not only having survived death, but having been Himself transformed into Gandalf the White, who guides and mentors the key players through their journey to the end. It is Gandalf also who, in a scene reminiscent of the gospel story of the deliverance of the mad Gadarene releases King Theoden of Rohan from his possession by Saruman, the fallen wizard.


Yet Tolkien is not writing allegory; he makes that very clear. He says in a letter to his agent,


Do not let Rayner Unwin (his publisher) suspect 'allegory'. There is a'moral' I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals - they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.


One of the closest of Tolkien's friends was the Christian writer and apologist C S Lewis. The persuasiveness of Tolkien's approach to myth is evidenced in the fact that it was through Tolkien's explanation of the Christian gospel as the one 'True myth' that the formerly atheist Lewis came himself to faith in Christ in 1931. Quoting again from Humphrey Carpenter;


        On Saturday 19 September 1931, they met in the evening. Lewis had invited Tolkien to dine at Magdalen, and he had another guest, Hugo Dyson, whom Tolkien had first known at Exeter College in 1919..He was a Christian, and a man of feline wit. After dinner, Tolkien and Dyson went out for air. It was a blustery night, but they strolled along Addison's Walk, discussing the purpose of myth. Lewis, though now a believer in God, could not yet understand the function of Christ in Christianity, could not perceive the meaning of the crucifixion and the resurrection.


'But' said Lewis, 'myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver..'

'No,' said Tolkien, 'they are not..'

And indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out on a different line of argument.

'You call a tree a tree' he said ,'and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a tree until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.


We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a sub-creator and inventing stories can man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however unshakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic progress leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.'


In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of the Silmarillion, (of which the Lord of the Rings is a key part).


Lewis came to see that the death and resurrection of Christ are the one 'true myth' , the full and clear revelation which all others point to. Twelve days later, Lewis wrote to his friend, Arthur Greeves,


        I have just passed from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ - in Christianity. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it'


Lewis and Tolkien continued their life-long friendship, and became the founder members of the small group called the Inklings which met week after week in Tolkien's rooms or over pints of ale in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where they would read to each other the latest extracts of their books, including Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Cosmic Trilogy.


I have appended to this essay Tolkien's own poem, Mythopoeia, or myth -making in its full version, so that we can hear the heart of the man on his philosophy; this is written to C S Lewis (whom he calls Misomythos - the myth -hater, as Tolkien takes the role of Philomythos, the Myth-lover. It is extensive, but I trust you will hear Tolkien loud and clear.


Colin Symes, 2004




To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'.

Philomythus to Misomythus


You look at trees and label them just so

(for trees are 'trees', and growing is 'to grow' );

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace

one of the many minor globes of Space:

a star's a star, some matter in a ball

compelled to courses mathematical

amid the regimented, cold. Inane,

where destined atoms are each moment slain.


At bidding of a Will, to which we bend

(and must), but only dimly apprehend,

great processes march on, as Time unrolls

from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;

and as on page o'erwritten without clue,

with script and limning packed of various hue,

an endless multitude of forms appear,

some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,

each alien, except as kin from one

remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.

God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,

tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these

homuncular men, who walk upon the ground

with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.

The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,

green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,

thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,

slime crawling up from mud to live and die,

these each are duly registered and print

the brain's contortions with a separate dint.

Yet trees are not 'trees', until so named and seen —

and never were so named, till those had been

who speech's involuted breath unfurled,

faint echo and dim picture of the world,

but neither record nor a photograph,

being divination, judgement, and a laugh,

response of those that felt astir within

by deep monition movements that were kin

to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:

free captives undermining shadowy bars,

digging the foreknown from experience

and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,

and looking backward they beheld the elves

that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,

and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first

of living silver made that sudden burst

to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,

whose very echo after-music long

has since pursued. There is no firmament,

only a void, unless a jewelled tent

myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,

unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:

not his to worship the great Artefact,

man, sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled

with elves and goblins, though we dared to build

gods and their houses out of dark and light,

and sow the seed of dragons, 'twas our right

(used or misused). The right has not decayed.

We make still by the law in which we're made.

Yes! 'wish-fulfilment dreams' we spin to cheat

our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

or some things fair and others ugly deem?

All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;

or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,

but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.


I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,

erect and sapient. Before them gapes

the dark abyss to which their progress tends -

if by God's mercy progress ever ends,

and does not ceaselessly revolve the same

unfruitful course with changing of a name.

I will not tread your dusty path and flat,

denoting this and that by this and that,

your world immutable wherein no part

the little maker has with maker's art.

I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,

nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.


In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see

that all is as it is, and yet made free:

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.


J R R Tolkien  1938